Start-up skepticism? You're not alone

MEMO TO: Tom Cruise

Recent press accounts of your new role at United Artists have been both snarky and ubiquitous. “Mission Improbable: Tom Cruise As Mogul,” headlined a piece in last week’s New York Times. “Can a Megastar Revive a Dormant United Artists?” asked the deck.

You’re accustomed to taking shots from the media, Tom, but here’s one thought that may assuage you: You are not exactly alone on your start-up mission. Look around town and you’ll find at least six regimes that have lifted off during the past year, most of them encountering the same start-up skepticism.

So that’s the good news, Tom: You are not alone. Now for the bad news: Experience shows that “starting over” in the studio business is akin to picking one’s way through a minefield.

Having said all this, the freshman fraternity is a distinguished one. Oren Aviv is just getting started as head of production at Disney. Mark Shmuger and David Linde have been in business at Universal for barely a year. Harvey and Bob Weinstein have been up and running at their new entity for a little over a year. Chris McGurk has unveiled his new company, Overture Films, under the aegis of John Malone. And Brad Grey this month celebrates his second anniversary at Paramount.

Then, of course, we have start-up regimes at three of the specialty labels in town, such as Warner Independent (Polly Cohen), Vantage (John Lesher) and the new Miramax (Daniel Battsek). And Les Moonves is giving signals he’ll trigger his movie machine in the coming weeks.

All these start-ups are having problems mobilizing their new slates, Tom, and there’s no reason to expect you and your partner, Paula Wagner, will face an easier path.

The obstacles facing the newcomers can be arrayed as follows:

  • The new guys have no record on creative issues. Will they establish their own development hell of endless script tinkering? Will they be dictatorial about final cut and release dates?

  • The newcomers, by and large, lack the big popcorn product to help propel their slates — tentpoles to which they can attach a trailer or that can leverage exhibitors for better playdates.

  • The new regimes have no backlog of material, having tossed out nearly every script developed by the prior studio boss (the standard ego ploy). Mindful of this void, agents diligently submit moldy old projects rejected by every other studio rather than expose their new goodies.

  • Studios with entrenched executives, such as Fox or Warner Bros., can fall back on longstanding talent relationships while the newcomers must scramble to establish those ties. Even Fox, which is famously tough on the dealmaking process, still retains a small but elite coterie.

Besides these concerns, Tom, there are other potential obstacles to your cause. You’re a big star: Will other stars feel spooked about confronting you as their overseer? We’re hip to the fact that the CAA machine will be vigorously behind you (after all, they played a major role in inventing the deal), but will that in itself discourage help from other talent agencies?

So, facing all this, what’s the best formula for success? Every studio titan of the past had his own pat recommendation. Give more creative freedom to the talent, said Arthur Krim. Always go first class, said Louis B. Mayer. Keep the savages in their place, said Harry Cohn.

Well, maybe, but when times get tough, it may also be prudent to listen to Oprah the Oracle. On several recent shows, she’s been touting a book called “The Secret” as the elixir for success. The basic epiphany of this feel-good tome comes down to this: You can reinvent your own life through your inner thoughts. You can even manipulate physical reality by imposing steely control over your feelings. Oprah’s formula for personal empowerment thus represents what she calls the ultimate “chicken soup of the soul.”

So if things get tough, Tom, go the Oprah route. You’re pretty good at mobilizing your inner feelings. Go for it. I mean, soulful chicken soup is better than chicken sh…

Well, you know what I’m driving at.

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